In Search of the Goldilocks of To-Do Lists

A friend of mine recently posted on Facebook asking if anyone had any hacks for “how to adult.” Like me, she works from home as a freelance writer. She’s having a hard time mostly with administration and logistics, figuring out how to best manage her time, her money and her schedule. Yes, adulting is hard and it’s even harder when you’re responsible for running your own business.

The short and decidedly cheeky answer to keeping track of everything you need to do is to utiliize to-do lists. Myself, I maintain multiple to-do lists across multiple platforms. I’ve got Google Calendar to track appointments and some deadlines, but the main actionable items are kept in my monthly kanban board. I also put together daily to-do lists in Google Keep, as well as weekly to-do lists using traditional pen and paper.

Overkill? Perhaps. Is this redundancy a waste of time? Quite possibly. But that’s not the real heart of the problem with to-do lists, at least for me.

I struggle with what might be described as a Goldilocks problem. Particularly in the context of daily to-do lists, I have the unfortunate habit of being overly ambitious in what I think I can accomplish each day. I end up putting too many items on the list and, at the end of the day, I see that I didn’t finish everything. I fail to recognize and appreciate what I did strike off the list, focusing solely on what I didn’t do.

Going in the other direction isn’t much better. Acknowledging my problem with overly ambitious to-do lists, I may purposefully compile a shorter list one day. You would think that when I strike everything off that list, I’d feel more accomplished. I don’t. I feel hollow. And I end up adding more items as the day goes on, constantly kicking the ball a little further down the field. I never feel like I can be done, because there’s always more to do.

And this lends itself to the related problem of precrastination, tackling tomorrow’s tasks today (when I really don’t need to).

I’m like Goldilocks, except instead of complaining about porridge that is too hot or too cold, rather than lying in a bed that is too hard or too soft, I’m burdening myself with to-do lists that are either too much or too little. Both instances lead to a great degree of self-inflicted guilt. That’s no way to adult.

Is there a healthy way to balance productivity against sanity? To stave off burnout while simultaneously fighting off underachievement? Inquiring minds want to know. Now there’s something to do.